Songs the Cramps Taught Me
By Michael S. Walker
Back in the nascent days of cable TV, before there was the Internet, before there was YouTube, EVEN before there was MTV, there existed, on the USA Network, a block of uber-cool, late-night programs collectively known as Night Flight. Airing on Friday and Saturday evenings, Night Flight was a cornucopia of alternative stuff that existed nowhere else on the BoobTube. Cutting-edge comedy routines. Cartoons that today would fit right in to the lineup of Adult Swim. Cult movies. I’m certain Night Flight was where I first got a gander at such bizarre fare as Reefer Madness and The Terror of Tiny Town. (They sure weren’t running those titles over on PBS.)
Between the wild programs, Night Flight showed music videos. A LOT of music videos. They were the first, actually, with the template that MTV would soon adopt, quickly sully, and finally reject in favor of teen reality shows. (For God knows what reason.) Night Flight was the first to put a little tag at the beginning of each vid, identifying the song, group, and the director of the clip. I saw Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” on Night Flight. It’s probably also the first place I saw Devo. (Are We Not Men? We are Devo. D-E-V-O!)
Among the music videos that aired in those days on Night Flight was a sweet little oddity called “Garbage Man,” by an American rock group called The Cramps. My friends and I would always look for it, as we drank our Little Kings (and imbibe other substances) and whoop with pleasure when, inevitably, it came on.
The “Garbage Man” vid is a perfect intro to the twisted, goth aesthetic adhered to by The Cramps for their long recording career. (Search for it sometime on YouTube—it’s worth a play or five.) Set in what appears to be a ruined churchyard in the middle of some Bolivian jungle, the video alternates between close-ups of lead singer Lux Interior (yep) contorting his body as if he were the Frankenstein monster suddenly gifted with the brain of Bo Diddley, and medium shots of the rest of the band looking sinister and pounding out rockabilly rhythms as clouds of dry ice threaten to swallow them whole. If you have ever seen any of the later sexploitation films that director Ed Wood was involved with, like the cheesy Orgy of The Dead, then you are already in the same neighborhood as “GarbageMan.” You could almost picture The Cramps providing the musical accompaniment for the naked and the dead in that piece of schlock.
Being a fan of trashy horror films and rockabilly, The Cramps were top of the pops in my mind. After a few exposures to it on Night Flight, I just HAD to have the record that “Garbage Man” was featured on. It took me awhile. These were, like I said, the days before the INTERNET. (Heavens, how did we function?) You couldn’t just put Cramps, Garbage Man, into a Google search engine. And voila—download the record in a manner of minutes. You had to read about stuff in music magazines. And then actually go and locate it in a bricks-and-mortar record store. I know—the horror…
Fortunately, I found the album that “Garbage Man” was featured on, in a record store (now defunct of course) called Singin’ Dogs, in Columbus, Ohio, about thirty miles from my hometown. That record is called (ironically or not) Songs The Lord Taught Us, and it was the first album recorded by The Cramps. Again, the album encapsulates everything The Cramps loved and were trying to put across in their music. If Ed Gein, instead of Elvis Presley, had wandered into the Sun recording studio, intent on laying down some tracks, he could have titled the resulting product Songs The Lord Taught Us. Absolutely.
There are some amazing, kitschy, hilarious, horrible things on Songs The Lord Taught Us. In addition to “Garbage Man” check out the boffo “I Was A Teenage Werewolf” with great lyrics like these: “You know, I have puberty rights/ And I have puberty wrongs/No one understood me/ All my teeth were so long…” And then there is the opening track, “TV Set” a song that DEFINITELY could have been penned by Ed Gein when he wasn’t busy doing ummm other things. “Oh baby I see you on my TV set/ Yeah I see you on my TV set/I cut your head off and put it in my TV set/ I use your eyeballs for dials on my TV set…” Ahhh, love.
The Cramps had a long long career of mining such morbid material, a career that stretched from 1976 to 2009. Although they never deviated from mixing horror with hillbilly beats (their last studio LP was called Fiends of Dope Island) the line-up was constantly shifting with each record, the only mainstays being lead singer Lux Interior (AKA Erick Lee Purkhiser) and his wife, lead guitarist (sometimes bassist) Poison Ivy (AKA Kristy Wallace) perhaps the sexiest woman to don a pair of skin-tight gold lame pants. When Lux died in 2009, the band was retired forever as a musical entity.
The Cramps are considered, and rightly so, as one of the first proponents of the fusion genre known as psychobilly—a genre that combines both rockabilly and punk, and finds its lyrical inspiration in horror films and sci-fi. Other great bands that picked up on this style include The Meteors, The Reverend Horton Heat, and the awe-inspiring Demented Are Go! I love all of these bands, but none of them make my heart beat and my skin crawl like the fabulous Cramps.
As a post-note, Songs The Lord Taught Us was produced by Alex Chilton. I don’t know how many WT readers know who Alex Chilton was, but in the early 70s Chilton was a guitarist, singer, and songwriter for the group Big Star, one of the greatest pop groups America EVER produced, and a group that, like The Cramps, never got the riches they so richly deserved.
Michael Walker is a writer, musician, artist, living in Columbus, Ohio. He is a graduate of the Ohio State University, where he graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English. He has seen his poetry and short stories published in a number of literary magazines. His first novel 7-22, a young adult fantasy novel, was recently published by Creative Guy Publishing. In addition to being completely stymied on his third novel in progress, Michael has an aversion to wooden popsicle sticks.